Walking in the downtown area of the small city where I live, I came upon a raggedy man engaged in a heated conversation with a man and woman sitting in a slightly less raggedy sedan. The man alternated between leaning into the car to hear what the man or woman was saying and then standing up to yell what he had to say — so that everyone in the vicinity (which meant just me, at that moment) could hear his end of it.
“This is fuckin’ ridiculous. It’s such an easy thing. Such a fuckin’ little thing.”
He was thin, in a sickly way. His face was flushed and deeply lined; his teeth, few and gray. He moved and sounded like a junkie. The downtown area is full of them: men, mostly, who in previous generations would have worked in the timber business, displaced by the Endangered Species Act and warped by years of unemployment and welfare into Gollums of entitlement. Crystal meth is usually their drug of choice . . . but marijuana or cheap booze will do.
“I can’t believe you’re doin’ this to me. Settin’ me up like this. Settin’ me up to fail. Fuck.”
The sedan and the junkie were idling in front of a bank. It was pretty clear that the “this” the people in the car were doing — or not doing — involved money.
I tried to get a clear look at the people in the car. They were older than the junkie but it was hard to tell how much. Junkies age badly; and, even when they aren’t junkies, working-class people in the Pacific Northwest don’t age well. The people in the car might have been his parents. Or a sibling and spouse. Something about the junkie’s sense of indignation suggested a family connection.
“I mean, look. It’s a fuckin’ investment. Investment. That’s what it is.”
And so language is ground into oblivion.
In our state, people on the dole usually have to sit through various educational meetings or sessions as a part of getting benefits. My guess: on his stumble down the socioeconomic ladder, the junkie had waited impatiently while many, many government employees repeated threadbare lines about their agencies’ “investment” in job training or cheap housing or troubled people. He’d retained it as a powerful word, a money word.
But he had no sense of what “investment” actually means. No sense of the return that investors expect on their money. No sense of the responsibility that comes with accepting investment. To him, “investment” was just a fancy word for handout — and he used it in the same way that a deadbeat asks for “loans” that he doesn’t intend to repay.
Many observers, from George Orwell to Liberty’s own Stephen Cox, have noted that collectivists use euphemisms in an effort to strip actions of meaning. And, particularly, to strip bad actions of their badness. It’s a pernicious process that robs people of moral agency.
Many of the same goodie-giving government agencies that talk about welfare as “investment” describe welfare recipients as “clients.” The misuse of each word has similar effect. The word “client” usually refers to the paying customer of some kind of professional service. Someone receiving a good or service for free is not a client; but, if he hears himself called a “client” often enough, he may lose the ability to make that distinction. And expect to be treated like a client wherever he goes.
I went into the bank to do some business and, when I came out a few minutes later, the junkie was leaning near the window of the raggedy sedan. He wasn’t saying anything. Neither of the people in the car was saying anything, either. They were all just staring at each other. Unmoored from meaning, frozen in their indignation.